INTERVIEW

Barrie Kerper, who has created a wonderful series of travel companions, interviewed me for her book Tuscany and Umbria: The Collected Traveler (Vintage Departures/Vintage Books, 2010). Her questions inspired me to offer some background on how The Piazzas of Florence came about and what it’s like to live here. These are some portions from the interview…

 
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It’s a rare and special event when a book is published today that has even an ounce of the kind of elegance and beauty of books published long ago, so I was over the moon when I received a copy of the The Piazzas of Florence by Lisa McGarry (Pier9/Murdoch Books, Australia & UK, 2008). It’s a hardcover that feels as if it were bound in hand-tooled leather; the endpapers are gorgeous, marbleized paper; there’s a silk ribbon bookmark; and it includes watercolor maps of each piazza. This is a work of art in itself.

 
The Arno just after sunset

The Arno just after sunset


Q | When and why did you decide to stay in Florence?

A | The process was gradual. After only “knowing” Florence secondhand (through an architectural history class I took while earning my architecture degree), I finally visited in 1996. I don’t think I’d even been so prepared for a trip, in terms of reading and research. I was very enthusiastic about Florence—it already felt familiar to me—but the firsthand experience sparked an even deeper passion for the city. From my very first visit I knew that I wanted to live in Florence, but it wasn’t practical to pick up and move at the time. So I returned each year, studied the language, and continued to pursue my independent research (which eventually went into the book) between visits.

At one point my British husband and I decided to relocate our family from the United States to Europe. He was working on a variety of international contracts for a British aerospace company, and we planned to spend four months in Florence as an interlude before choosing where to settle once an appealing contract became available.

We arrived in September 2004, and my goal was to complete the research for the book I had been working on (the one that ultimately became The Piazzas of Florence). It wasn’t long before we decided that our daughter should have the

 

opportunity to finish the school year in Florence. When my husband and I decided to go our separate ways a few months later, there was no question in my mind that my daughter and I would remain in Florence.

The everyday life here has felt so natural from the beginning. Part of this is the profound and positive impact that not needing a car has on our daily routine—and I love the intimacy/contact with the city and the people that comes from being able to walk everywhere. I feel comfortable—at home— yet my senses are continuously stimulated by the very urban fabric (the streets, the architecture, the piazzas) and the rhythm of the days and the seasons. It feels natural, “right.”

Q | Piazza Pitti—or rather Pitti Beach as you refer to it—is your neighborhood piazza. What are some of your favorite things about it?

A | Piazza Pitti is certainly not Florence’s most charming square—all that stone is very monochromatic, and the scale is rather ostentatious—but the façade has grown on me over the years. I love how the space invites people to pause, to picnic, to sunbathe, to gather—it’s always full of locals and visitors, which creates a good energy—and I think it’s amazing that everyone feels so comfortable in such a monumental setting.


Late afternoon light on Palazzo Pitti

Late afternoon light on Palazzo Pitti

 

I like how the rondò—the wings that extend from either side of the Palazzo Pitti’s main structure—embrace the square. The sloped surface functions as theater seating, and there’s such a generous expanse of sky overhead (not always easy to find in this dense city). The sun interacts beautifully with the palace’s stone—my favorite time is late afternoon, when everything turns golden. I appreciate the square’s changing role each season: in spring it’s a wonderful place to absorb the first warmth of the year; in summer we go there for the early morning  breezes or to look for the evening’s first stars (it’s essentially empty during the intense heat of midday); and in autumn we enjoy the precious last warmth of the year.

Q | I love when you say, “I am inspired each time I open my front door.” Is this something you feel because you live opposite the Pitti and in the Oltrarno, or about Firenze in general?

A | Inspiration starts flowing the moment I pass through the portone, but it’s much more than the presence of Palazzo Pitti looming larger than life on the other side of the door. In Florence you are literally surrounded by visual stimulation—as you walk along the palazzo-lined Via Maggio, follow the narrow streets that lead into Piazza Santo Spirito, cross the Arno river, pass through Piazza della Signoria, or discover a new street for the first time. It’s ever-present!


Sunlit buildings reflecting on the Arno

Sunlit buildings reflecting on the Arno


And, despite how familiar the Oltrarno has become, I continue to encounter surprises. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of a private courtyard through a momentarily opened portone as I walk along a street; other times it might be a corner tabernacle that I’d never noticed before or an oil painting by the artist whose monograph I just borrowed from the library hanging in the display window of an antique store. It’s also things like the way the sun plays on the architectural details, or appreciating how the same elements—windows and shutters, roof overhangs/angles—repeat in an endless rhythmic, yet varied, pattern as I look down a long street.

Q | What were some things that inspired you to write the book?

A | First and foremost: Florence itself—everything I read, heard, then ultimately experienced. But it was also a love of books—of the very form of a book—and the potential inherent in a book’s design.

You never know where that first tiny seed of an idea might come from; in this case it was a sheet of paper by Rives. Its wonderful creamy tint, slightly toothy texture and deckled edges got me daydreaming about creating a book, and Florence seemed like a natural subject.

I began by experimenting with designing miniature booklets, considering conceptually how

 

I might lay out the content. I was interested in a design with pages that folded out—my original plan included historical and background information about Florence on the first pages of each chapter, and then pages that would unfold to reveal different types of increasingly more “personal” information. There would be excerpts from the writings of a number of past travelers, watercolor maps (which could then be personalized by the reader), “invitations” (jumping-off points to inspire the reader to draw, write and collage), as well as blank space for the reader to use as she or he wished.

I played around with several ideas for structuring the book. I was especially interested in Florence’s physical features—both the natural ones (the Arno and the hills that enclose the valley) and the built ones (the city walls, towers, palazzi, churches and piazze)—so I began by considering these as a possible way to organize the material. Eventually this led me to the idea of organizing the chapters around the piazzas; for me, this is Florence’s most dynamic urban feature.

The book concept changed considerably once I finally found a publisher—becoming narrative as opposed to what I called “interactive”—but since I had by that time been living in Florence for a few years, and the piazzas had become an integral part of my life, I felt comfortable weaving in my personal experiences when the publisher suggested it. And the piazzas gave me a great way to tell the story. (A final comment on the Rives: of


The cloister of San Lorenzo

The cloister of San Lorenzo

 

course it wasn’t used for the book—too expensive—but I did end up printing the mock-up booklets I designed as part of my proposa on it.)

Q | You note in the book’s first chapter that there are over one hundred piazzas in Florence, and “with their varied shapes, sizes, and characters, Florence’s piazzas create necessary pauses, allowing breathing space within the compact urban fabric.” You mention that, of all Florence’s diverse features, the piazzas are your favorite. So I have to ask: which piazza is your favorite?

A | Although it’s not an easy choice—they are all unique, and each one plays a different role in my life here—Piazza Santo Spirito stands out as my clear favorite for as far back as I can remember.

Your question did prompt me to consider the list again though. My associations with the other squares tend to be fairly specific: for example, I go to Piazza della Repubblica for the Thursday plant market, a cappuccino at Gill’s bar, and a visit to the bookstore; to Piazza della Signoria so I can spend some time sitting in the Loggia dei Lanzi; to Piazza San Lorenzo to reach the church’s peaceful cloister; to Piazza Santa Croce for the chance to watch Sunday afternoon unfolding. And my daily routines take me through many other lovely piazzas—this is one of the bestthings about living in a city where you can walk everywhere.


The church of Santo Spirito

The church of Santo Spirito


But Piazza Santo Spirito is special because it’s an everyday piazza—one that offers so much: a daily morning market, countless cafés and restaurants with patios, and shops filled with interesting things like baskets, seeds and grains, or school supplies and art materials. And then there’s the church of Santo Spirito, with its unusual curvy façade and a Renaissance interior by Brunelleschi. I feel so lucky that this wonderful example of architecture sits just a two-minute walk from my home—that I can just wander in any time it’s open. I love how people congregate around the octagonal fountain in the center of the piazza, along the stone benches that sit beneath the generous canopy of trees, or on the sunny steps in front of the church.

Yet it’s something more than these easily-identifiable attributes. Piazza Santo Spirito is a comfortable space—like a big outdoor family room. You see a variety of people here, engaged in all sorts of activities. There are grandparents keeping an eye on their grandkids, artists and students working in sketch pads or at easels, school children chasing each other, locals and visitors enjoying a civilized lunch or a Prosecco in the evening, as well as the homeless who call this piazza home. It’s a very real sample of life in a city. As I wrote in the book, it’s not always beautiful per se—the fountain gets polluted, graffiti shows up on the buildings and nights can run late and loud—but it is authentic and alive and endlessly interesting.

 

Q | Does your daughter attend a bilingual school? She must be fluent in Italian by now—is she as inspired by Italy as you are?

A | Ella goes to a local public school, so all of her classes are in Italian (except the minimal gesture of an English class). She was about to enter first grade when we arrived in Florence—the perfect age to pick up the language—and the locals tell me she speaks like a Fiorentina now! It’s been a very low-key education (reminding me a lot of the similarly small, simple elementary school I attended in Brazil), but I have been impressed by what she’s been exposed to. Vasari’s anecdotes about the artists seem to be general knowledge even at this age. Her class read the original Pinocchio in the Florentine dialect, which they apparently got quite a kick out of. The local history they are taught comes alive through museum visits and the very piazzas where Florence’s history was written, and Ella often calls my attention to details that are new to me as we walk through the city together. It’s hard to say how much Italy itself has influenced her; it’s part of who she is now. She reads as easily in Italian as English, and writes stories, poems and songs in both languages. If only we could all begin learning other languages in first grade!

 
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Day’s end on the Arno

Day’s end on the Arno